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Shine light on the invisible social economy as it can wipe out inequality

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Today, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is holding its 3rd European Day of Social Economy Enterprises in Brussels.

When we talk about inequality, we should remind ourselves that a good slice of Europe's economy is making profits for people other than investors or owners. Cooperatives, mutual societies, non-profit associations, foundations are part of this very vibrant community that makes the social economy.

Despite the achievements over the past decade, the social economy remains to a great extent invisible in the national accounts and statistics around Europe. This pattern must change. Social enterprises should be credited for their contribution to EU's social and economic development, as they play a significant role in solving a wide range of social and economic challenges.

Today, there are more than 2 million social economy enterprises in Europe, representing 10 percent of all businesses in the EU. More than 13 million people, about 6.3 percent of the EU’s workforce is employed by social economy enterprises.

This is not negligible. Some of these organisations have been instrumental in solving some of the challenges Europe is facing, such as the social integration of migrants. They have provided health and assistance, housing, training, and education, as well as work and active inclusion.

Social economy enterprises resilient to economic hardships

The social economy has proved to be the most resilient to economic hardships as its enterprises have emerged from the economic and financial crisis largely unscathed.   Social enterprises are also a very unique engine for social innovation, which has been key in responding to the growing need for assistance and care for people who cannot look after themselves, particularly the elderly and those with a disability.

In many cases, they have managed to step up women's participation in the labour market, both by involving them directly in social economy enterprises and by setting up new services for children and families. At the same time, these organisations have helped to create jobs for disadvantaged people, focusing particularly on people who may be in danger of serious social exclusion, such as people with disabilities or those suffering from mental distress or alcohol or drug addictions.

It is undeniable that social economy enterprises have won their spurs as a key actor in promoting a European social model.

However, the impact of the social economy on economic growth and jobs varies among EU countries. The concept of the social economy is widely recognized in Spain as well as in France, Belgium or Luxembourg, and as a result has a substantial impact on employment in these countries.  For instance, this sector in Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, France or the Netherlands accounts for 9 to 10 percent of total employment. Meanwhile, in the new EU Member States, the social economy remains a small and relatively weak sector, employing only fewer than 2 percent of the working population.  

The sector is a winner-in-the-making. If during the past ten years, the number of jobs in this sector has increased by 40% throughout Europe, becoming a significant element for growth in the EU, there is ground to believe that the future will be brighter.

At the Committee, we have been focusing on supporting and promoting the social economy as a critical driver of economic and social development in Europe for the past decade.

I firmly believe that the social economy best illustrates and defends the values on which the European Union is built. It is a key feature of the social dimension of Europe. It is both an opportunity and a vehicle for citizen participation, responsibility, and ownership of our sustainable future.  

We need to make this part of the economy more visible, as it is a cornerstone not only for jobs and social cohesion throughout Europe, but also for building and consolidating a European Pillar of Social Rights.

There is an untapped potential for linking the internal and external dimensions of the social economy in the EU, particularly in relations with our neighbors during times of increasing political, and economic turbulence and insecurity. It is up to both European leaders and to civil society on the ground to tap this potential. We need to walk the walk to tackle inequality. The first step is to recognise the human face of the social economy.

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